Ossetian: An Endangered Language

By: Maria-Madalina Aldea

Overview of the Ossetian Language

The Ossetian language, spoken in both North and South Ossetia, is part of the Northeastern group of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European stock of languages, although Ossetian and Iranian (Farsi or Persian) are not mutually comprehensible.

Ossetian is one of the world’s many endangered languages, according to UNESCO (Moseley, C: 2010) and experts argue that it could die out within a couple of generations because of the prevalence of the Russian language in the region.

This tendency started a few centuries ago because of different geopolitical conflicts that are still of great importance today.

South Ossetia

South Ossetia is an unrecognized country in the South Caucasus, internationally recognized as part of Georgia. It has a population of 53,500 people who live in an area of 3,900 km2, south of the Russian Caucasus, with 30,000 living in Tskhinvali. Around 4,000 are ethnic Georgians, making them the second most populous ethnic group. (Eurostat, 2019)

The Ossetian Language

Ossetian is an official language in North and South Ossetia, with two main dialects of Ossetian spoken: Digor (Дигор) and Iron (Ирон). Some scholars argue that there is a third main dialect - Tual.

The Digor speakers live mainly in North Ossetia, the Tual in the South, and the Iron in both North and South Ossetia.

The Iron dialect is the largest dialect group and is the basis for written Ossetian. Many Digor and Tual speakers can also speak the Iron dialect. A less relevant dialect is Jassic, which used to be spoken in Hungary, but is rarely used today.

In North Ossetia-Alania, the two official languages are Ossetian and Russian. Most North Ossetians can speak Russian competently, although often with a distinct accent. In addition, many South Ossetians also have a good command of the Russian language.

Ossetian was first written during the 18th century with a version of the Arabic script. Then in 1844, a method of writing Ossetian with the Cyrillic alphabet was developed by Sjoegren.

Between 1923 and 1937 a version of the Latin alphabet was used to write the language, and since 1938, the Cyrillic alphabet has been used, though from 1938 to the 1950s, a version of the Georgian alphabet was used to write Ossetian in South Ossetia.

Speakers of Ossetian

According to Grimes (Grimes, 2000), Iranian languages constitute a group of about 80 languages and are spoken by about 71 million people in at least 7 countries: Afghanistan, China, Iraq, Iran, Oman, Pakistan, Russia, Syria, Tajikistan, and Turkey.

Ossetian is spoken by approximately 600,000 people in the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania in the Russian Federation, and in the Republic of South Ossetia, an unrecognized country bordering both Russia and Georgia.

Linguistic Structure of Ossetian

There are some clear similarities between the languages spoken on this region. For example, the Ossetian word for ‘new’ is næwæg, which is a cognate of the Pashto nəvay, the Persian now (pronounced like no, not like now), and more distantly, the Sanskrit nava, the Russian novyj and even the English new.

Similarly, the Ossetian word for ‘mother’ — mad — is cognate with the Pashto mōr, the Persian mādar, the Russian mat’ and the English mother itself, when compared to the Old English word 'modor' - mother.

Other cognates highlight the classification of the Ossetian language as a member of the Iranian family, though no obvious correspondences exist with the western Indo-European languages, like English or Russian.

For instance, compare the Ossetian shyrx ‘red’ with its Indo-Aryan cognates: the Pashto sur and the Persian sorx.

The affinity of Ossetian with other Iranian languages can be found not only in the basic vocabulary but also in the deep grammatical patterns of the language.

Ossetian is like other Iranian languages in featuring the Subject-Object-Verb order (this is quite unlike most other Indo-European languages, including English, which have the Subject-Verb-Object order).

The sentence ‘The elders gave a name to the boy’ in Ossetian is XishtQrtQ lQppujyl nom shQvQrdtoj, literally, ‘the elders on the boy the name put’.

In line with the cross-linguistic typological tendencies, being a Subject-Object-Verb language, Ossetian also has postpositions rather than prepositions, so that words like ‘in’ or ‘to’ appear after rather than before the noun. So, ‘in the house’ in Ossetian is literally ‘house in’ and ‘to school’ is ‘school to’.

Another characteristic that places Ossetian among Iranian languages and distinguishes is quite clearly from languages indigenous to the Caucasus is the lack of ergativity in this language; as is typical of Indo-European languages its morphosyntactic alignment is of the nominative-accusative type. We can make a parallelism with English pronouns in order to clarify it.

In English, the subject appears in the same (nominative case) form regardless of whether an object is also present or not: He kissed Mary and He left. The object, however, appears in a different (accusative case) form: Mary kissed him (not *Mary kissed he).

The same applies to other Indo-European languages, such as Latin, German, Romanian and Russian.

In contrast, indigenous Caucasian languages, such as Chechen or Georgian, exhibit the ergative-absolutive alignment: unlike in English, the subjects of ‘He kissed him’ and ‘He left’ are not in the same form in Chechen or Georgian.

Instead, the subject of an object-less (intransitive) sentence like ‘He left’ appears in the same (absolutive case) form as the object, so you can think of these sentences as being literally ‘He kissed him’ and ‘Him left’.

Crucially, Ossetian patterns with other Indo-European languages and not with Chechen and Georgian in this respect.

On the other hand, unlike a typical Indo-European language which makes do with an average of four cases, Ossetian has nine cases: nominative, genitive, dative, allative, ablative, inessive, adessive, equative and comitative. This relatively rich system of cases – including several locative cases such as allative (‘to’), ablative (‘from’), inessive (‘in’), adessive (‘at, on’) – may well be a borrowed Caucasian trait.

The presence of such Caucasian influences on deep grammatical patterns of an otherwise typical Iranian/Indo-European language suggests a certain degree of intermarriage between Iranian-speaking ancestors of the Ossetians, the Alans and their Caucasian neighbors.

When individuals, usually women, marry into another linguistic group, they typically pick up the language of their new community, but speak it with the “home accent”, introducing sounds and structures of their native tongue into their adoptive one.

Children who grow up in such bilingual families and communities are not able to distinguish the “accented” structures from the native ones and thus mix them even more freely. A few generations down the line such originally “foreign” structures become fully incorporated into the language of the wider community.

If so, we should look for both Iranian and Caucasian “genes” among the Ossetians, and indeed we find both

Historical Aspects

The Ossetians, who live in the Caucasus Mountains between Russian and Georgian republics, are the descendants of an ancient people, the Alans, who occupied this territory as early as the 5th century.

This ancient people spoke a language belonging to the Iranian branch of Indo-European and were distantly related to today's Iranians and Afghans. Even during the 20th century, Ossetians have defended their right to live in the territories of Ossetia by tracing their roots in the region back to the ancient Alans.

In the 1990s, to honor these origins, Moscow renamed North Ossetia as North Ossetia-Alania.

Throughout the 20th century, the Ossetian nation has suffered from interference with its territorial boundaries. In 1918, following the collapse of the Tsarist Russian Empire and the rise of the Soviet regime, the Ossetian territory was divided into North and South Ossetia.

North Ossetia was defined as part of the Russian state, while South Ossetia was considered to be part of the Georgian Republic. Ossetians still protest the division of their territory, preferring a single united Ossetia - similar to other divided states.

Some consider the division of Ossetia to have been an attempt on the part of the Soviet government to weaken the culture and national identity of Ossetians.

Ossetian: An Endangered Language

The two Ossetian dialects (Digor and Iron) are sufficiently different as not to be mutually comprehensible. There are, for example, some 2,500 words in Digor that do not exist in Iron.

Until 1937, Digor was in fact considered a separate language, and some North Ossetian scholars still argue that Iron and Digor are both full-fledged languages, rather than mere dialects.

The phonetic, morphological, and lexical differences between them appear to be greater than between Chechen and Ingush, according to Aslan Doukaev of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service.

Most speakers of Digor can understand Iron, but not vice versa. The North Ossetian constitution mentions both dialects as the state language, but, for reasons that remain unclear, the republican parliament has still not passed the law on the state languages drafted in 2005. North Ossetian State TV launched a program in Digor four years ago.

At the time of the 2010 All-Russia census, there were 459,688 Ossetians in North Ossetia, of whom 455,328 claimed a knowledge of "Ossetian." But an informal survey conducted by journalists in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, last year casts doubt on those statistics. Of an unspecified number of people whom they questioned on the street, 36 percent claimed to speak Ossetian fluently, 32 percent to speak it well, and 11 percent to speak it badly.

But when addressed in Ossetian rather than Russian, even some of those who claimed to speak the language fluently proved unable to reply coherently in Ossetian.

Cognisant of the danger that the Ossetian language could die out within a couple of generations, the North Ossetian authorities adopted two successive programs (2008-12 and 2013-2015) to promote the study of the Digor variant of Ossetian among the younger generation. In many cases, the parents do not speak the language themselves and are thus unable to pass it on to their children.

Ossetian is a compulsory subject in all schools and kindergartens, and a vast range of new textbooks in Digor has been commissioned in preparation for selected schools to switch to Ossetian as the language in which all other subjects are taught.

The Russian Constitution is generally supportive of multilingualism and distinct state languages as official languages. Article 68 states:

1. The Russian language shall be a state language on the whole territory of the Russian Federation.

2. The Republics shall have the right to establish their own state languages. In the bodies of state authority and local self-government, state institutions of the Republics they shall be used together with the state language of the Russian Federation.

3. The Russian Federation shall guarantee to all of its peoples the right to preserve their native language and to create conditions for its study and development.

In practice, however, there is little space given to Ossetian within official domains, both within the Russian republic of North Ossetia as well as in South Ossetia.

In South Ossetian public schools, Ossetian is a subject of two classes (literature and grammar) but the medium of instruction is always Russian. In North Ossetia, Ossetian is not even a subject in the public school system and children are not exposed to Ossetian in any official capacity.

Due to a mix of factors, younger people from North Ossetia increasingly use Russian between themselves. Most maintain some grasp of the language but there appears to be a growing number of ethnic Ossetians in North Ossetia who are monolingual Russian speakers.

In both North and South Ossetia local print media and radio in the Ossetian language exist, although these outlets compete with larger Russian newspapers, radio and television programs that have far wider circulation.

In conclusion, Ossetian presents an interesting case of an official state language that is considered to be threatened given the current trends.

There is much to be learned from the Ossetian situation about the relative weight of factors in language endangerment. Official status, while potentially a powerful tool, can be dwarfed in significance by educational policy and the force of popular media.


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Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/iranian-languages

Endangered Language Alliance: Ossetian, an Eastern Iranian language of the former Soviet Union. August 2012. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from: http://elalliance.org/languages/iranic/ossetian/

Eurostat: Demographic statistics for the European Neighbourhood Policy-East countries — 2019 edition. Retrieved September 13, 2019 from: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/en/web/products-catalogues/-/KS-01-19-056.

Hettich, B. (2002): Ossetian: Revisiting Inflectional Morphology. University of North Dakota.

Moseley, Christopher (ed.). 2010. Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, 3rd edn. Paris, UNESCO Publishing. Retrieved September 13, 2019 from: http://www.unesco.org/culture/en/endangeredlanguages/atlas

Omniglot. The online encyclopedia of writing systems and languages. Ossetian. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from: https://www.omniglot.com/writing/ossetian.htm

Pereltsvaig, A.: “On the Ossetian Language” in Languages of the World, Exploring The Rich Diversity Of Human Languages, 15 May, 2014. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from: https://www.languagesoftheworld.info/russia-ukraine-and-the-caucasus/ossetian-language.html

Radio Free Europe. Radio Liberty: One Nation, Two Polities, Two Endangered Ossetian Languages? May 27, 2015. Retrieved September 12, 2019 from: https://www.rferl.org/a/caucasus-report-ossetian-language-endangered-russia/27039247.html

The Constitution of the Russian Federation. Retrieved September 13, 2019 from: http://www.constitution.ru/en/10003000-04.htm

Worldmark Encyclopedia of Cultures and Daily Life (2009): Ossetians. Retrieved September 11, 2019 from: Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/humanities/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/ossetians

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